Thursday, 21 November 2019

By the Grace of God (François Ozon, 2019)

François Ozon is a filmmaker who almost always comes up with something interesting.  Some of his earlier works were associated with the New French Extremity, and for many years this prolific, mischievous director has seesawed between high frivolity (8 Women, Potiche) and more sombre concerns (5x2, Time to Leave).  While sitting down to watch an Ozon film, you're pretty confident you'll find him working in one of these modes - or maybe even both, as in In the House and Young & Beautiful.  His most recent film prior to By the Grace of God was Double Lover, which played almost as a self-parody: borderline transgressive, trashy and sloppy, it was a film which saw Ozon treading water as he went through the motions of adapting Joyce Carol Oates' 1987 novel Lives of the Twins.  While admittedly rather fun, it was cookie-cutter Ozon which presented nothing especially new.  But the throwaway Double Lover provided no hint as to what Ozon would do next: his latest film is a truly staggering work, one quite unlike anything else in the director's filmography.

As with the terrific Oscar-winner Spotlight, By the Grace of God is concerned with the Catholic Church abuse scandal, and Ozon is quite open about the similarities between the two films.  However, By the Grace of God does differ from Tom McCarthy's movie, not least in that Ozon's film was made as the trial of one of its characters was still in progress; an unusual move, certainly, yet one which imbues the film with a sense of freshness and immediacy which is almost palpable.  By the Grace of God was not only made while these court proceedings were underway, but the film itself was dragged into the courts as Bernard Preynat, the priest depicted in the film, attempted to block its release.  Incredibly, this €6 million production was only cleared for release the day before it was due to hit cinemas.  Indeed, the story of By the Grace of God's production would make for a gripping film in itself.

Ozon's film follows three grown men, all of whom were childhood victims of Preynat (Bernard Verley).  The first chunk of the film is devoted to Alexandre (Ozon regular Melvil Poupaud), a calm family man who's shocked to learn that Preynat, under the Cardinal's protection, is still working with children.  As a result of this discovery, Alexandre decides to take action, and a church psychologist arranges a meeting between victim and abuser, which is intended to aid the healing process.  Preynat doesn't deny what happened, and while he seems pleased to see that Alexandre has grown up to be a well-adjusted member of society, the priest doesn't seem especially sorry for the crimes he committed, merely stating that they were the symptom of an illness; he's certainly not looking for forgiveness.  The slightly surreal meeting ends with the truly sickening, horrifying sight of Alexandre being persuaded to take Preynat's hand as a concluding prayer is recited.

The more cautious Alexandre then gives way in the narrative to the headstrong François (Denis Ménochet), another victim, yet one who wants to cause maximum damage to the Church.  Like Alexandre, François has grown up to become a content and fulfilled adult, yet his atheism drives him in a way which Alexandre - who still attends church with his young family - can't fully relate to.  Nonetheless, Alexandre and François have more than enough in common as they look to take on Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), who seems chiefly concerned with putting his institution's reputation ahead of its victims.  The film's title comes from a quote from the Cardinal, who stated that it was "by the grace of God" that the statute of limitations precluded most of the abuse cases making it to court.  Make of that what you will.

Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), the third and last of the film's main characters to be introduced, is by far the most damaged of the Church's victims.  Prone to seizures which are linked to the trauma of his abuse, the unemployed Emmanuel appears to have spent his entire adult life on his uppers, and lives in a shabby apartment with a girlfriend he constantly argues with.  But through meeting Alexandre, François and other victims, Emmanuel gains a sense of purpose as this trio of very different men join forces in order to seek justice.  While the three main actors are all terrific here, it's Arlaud who steals the film with a truly incendiary performance, with his Emmanuel representing the impact of the Church's crimes at its worst: for every Alexandre (or François) who managed to get on with their life, there are many Emmanuels out there, stuck in a rut, broken and forgotten - if they're still alive.

By the Grace of God is an immaculate, quietly devastating work which continues telling a story the world needs to hear.  While someone might suggest you should just watch Spotlight instead as it covers a lot of similar ground, By the Grace of God's existence is hugely important, as it serves as a European angle on a problem which has affected many parts of the world; hopefully, there will be more films which highlight the Catholic Church abuse scandal in other territories.  While it may well be Ozon's best film, By the Grace of God is also the least typical of the director's works, and his fingerprints are nowhere to be found here; it provides final proof, if any were needed, of this genre-hopping filmmaker's versatility.  While normal service will most likely be resumed with his upcoming Eté 84 (which also stars Poupaud and has already finished shooting), this welcome departure for François Ozon is a vital, urgent work, and one of 2019's best films.

Darren Arnold


Monday, 11 November 2019

Monos (Alejandro Landes, 2019)

Alejandro Landes' absorbing, unsettling Monos has received no end of rave reviews since it debuted at the beginning of this year.  Before it made its way into cinemas, it picked up numerous festival awards, including the top prize at last month's London Film Festival.  As with two other notable LFF 2019 titles - Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Lighthouse - you just know that the Dutch-backed Monos won't quite live up to the hype that's preceded it, but it is a taut, muscular and impressive work.  Landes' film appears to have been primarily designed as a sensory experience; admittedly, there's not much of a plot here, but that's not too much of a hindrance in a work which requires you to do little more than buckle up before it takes you on its nightmarish, hallucinatory journey.

The title refers to a group of child soldiers who are based at the top of a windswept, rain-lashed mountain, where they guard their American hostage Doctora (Julianne Nicholson).  The members of Monos, who are only identified by code names, receive their orders from a murky organisation known as, er, The Organisation, who frequently send a messenger known as - yes - The Messenger (Wilson Salazar) to oversee some of the soldiers' training.  The Monos and Doctora are joined by a dairy cow named Shakira, and the soldiers make a point of treating their bovine companion with great care - the logic being that supporters will no longer lend them things if they don't look after them.  It's a hard life for all on the mountaintop - wet, cold and very muddy - yet the Monos stick to their orders in a manner which belies their age.

Just as we're getting used to this setup, the Monos' compound comes under attack, and the group are forced to flee to the jungle, where the conditions they must endure - mosquitoes, mudslides and so on - make their erstwhile home seem like a luxury resort.  From this more makeshift base, Doctora realises that her odds of escaping have increased, as the Monos and their prisoner are now housed in less secure surroundings and, more crucially, the group is now characterised by in-fighting; among the many squabbles, a break from The Organisation is mooted.  Gone is the previous unity, and it could be argued that the children are now merely returning to something resembling their natural state.  Lord of the Flies is an obvious comparison point here - so much so that we even get to see a pig's head on a spike; refreshingly, Landes is quite transparent about his influences.

Monos is such an immersive experience that you soon forget to keep asking the many burning questions about the Monos, including: Who are they fighting?  Are they involved in a much bigger conflict?  Are they heroes or villains?  Why are they holding Doctora?  Context is lacking, which only adds to the argument that Landes wants us to respond to his film on a more primal level; a thunderous, unnerving score by British composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin) plays a huge part in conjuring an oppressive atmosphere, one in which you constantly feel as if you're on the verge of witnessing something terrible.  Monos really has to be seen in a cinema, as any stepping back from its enveloping madness only leads us to deal with the film in more logical terms - and this thrill ride can't withstand such scrutiny.  While Monos isn't quite as convincing a waking nightmare as those we've come to expect from Gaspar Noé (Irreversible and Climax being prime examples), Alejandro Landes' film is nonetheless a compelling, idiosyncratic and highly singular work. 
Darren Arnold

Image: Cineuropa

Friday, 1 November 2019

Intimate Audrey in Amsterdam (1/11/19–31/1/20)

Beurs van Berlage in the heart of Amsterdam welcomes the acclaimed living biography of Audrey Hepburn.

From November 1st to January 31st, walk behind the screen and through Audrey's life as a Flemish child, wife, mother and ambassador. 

Audrey was born in Brussels and spent her youth in the Netherlands. Her roots are Flemish. After the war, she returned to launch and bestow a trophy bearing her name for the BNMO veteran organization.

This exhibition was made possible by NH Collection hotels who gave us an extraordinary experience allowing us to successfully bring Audrey home to her roots. 

600m2 featuring hundreds of original and re-printed photographs, memorabilia, dresses and accessories as well as her never before seen fashion drawings and humanitarian writings. 

Words/image: Intimate Audrey

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Two of Us (Filippo Meneghetti, 2019)

Fassbinder favourite Barbara Sukowa gives a fine performance in this touching but rarely sentimental film which depicts a lesbian relationship between two pensioners; it's far removed from the likes of Blue is the Warmest Colour or current critical smash Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but, considering its focus on a couple of a certain age, it's arguably a more daring picture than those two Cannes-winning titles.  It's also a most assured feature debut from Filippo Meneghetti, who carefully handles material which could easily have ended up as overcooked as the scorched contents of the two frying pans which feature in key scenes here.

Sukowa's Nina lives across the hall from Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), and to everyone in their lives they're viewed as simply being friends and neighbours.  However, the two have actually been a couple for many years, and are now planning on moving to Italy.  Nina has no family, but the widowed Madeleine has two grown-up children and a grandson, all of whom live in the same town as her.  Madeleine resolves to tell her family about her plans to sell up and move away, but bottles it at the crucial moment.  Nina is furious, and lets Madeleine know it; shortly afterwards, Madeleine suffers a major stroke.  In a very short span of time, Madeleine and Nina's relatively minor problem of how to break some news has been replaced by something truly shattering.

With a rather surly round-the-clock carer (Muriel Bénazéraf) now looking after the stricken Madeleine, Nina no longer gets to spend much time with the love of her life, and her attempts to rectify this involve increasingly risky - and, to be honest, rather creepy - methods.  In addition to the belligerent Muriel, Nina must contend with Madeleine's daughter Anne (Léa Drucker, excellent), who initially appreciates Nina's neighbourliness - until the penny drops.  Upon realising what was going on behind her late father's back for so many years, Anne is in no mood to grant Nina any further access to Madeleine, who is now showing some small signs of recovery.

With the impressive Chevallier's Madeleine rendered mute for much of the film, it's not too surprising that this ends up largely being Sukowa's show, and she certainly puts it all in with a character who isn't, in the main, terribly likeable, yet the love and devotion she exhibits often serves to cancel out her bad behaviour - at least in the viewer's eyes.  But it's the tenderness at the heart of the relationship between these two women which elevates the film into something way beyond ordinary, and in Two of Us Meneghetti has crafted an authentic, moving and grown-up piece of cinema, one which hopefully won't fly under the radar.  It screens at the London Film Festival tomorrow and on Saturday.

Darren Arnold

Images: Cineuropa

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

#21XOXO / The Sasha (S. & I. Özbilge / M. M. Peiró, 2019)

The Culture is a collection of eight short films which screens at the London Film Festival on the 11th and 13th of October, and every film in the programme takes a look at online culture - something which only recently seemed very futuristic but is now firmly embedded in our everyday lives.  I've only seen a quarter of the films which feature in The Culture, but the ones I've watched have been quite impressive; on this basis, the other 75% of the programme should be worth catching.  The selection includes one film from the Netherlands and two from Belgium, although Belgian title Zombies - a co-production with DR Congo - has thus far eluded me.

The Belgian film in the programme which I have seen is #21XOXO - a clever, witty and rather adult slice of animation which sees a young woman use various forms of technology in her search for love.  As we all know, it's now possible to line up potential partners without even leaving the comfort of home, which is exactly what our protagonist does here; while such practice isn't especially new, it's nonetheless a significant marker of how social interaction has dramatically changed since the advent of new technologies, and the film reminds us of this as it forces us to consider our online selves.  #21XOXO is a fun, refreshing and colourful short, one which turns up something new just when you thought there wasn't much left to say about those who spend their days glued to one screen or another.

The Dutch offering in The Culture takes the form of The Sasha, a contemplative look at the work of astronaut Charles Duke, who was a member of the three-man crew on the Apollo 16 mission.  Among his other lunar duties, Duke was charged with taking photographs, and it's this aspect of his work in the Descartes Highlands that The Sasha focuses on.  Duke attempted to take a photo of the entire Earth from space, but the iconic image we all know as The Blue Marble was actually taken during the next (and final) Apollo mission.  There's a fascinating personal touch in the Apollo 16 story: Duke left a picture of himself, his wife and their two sons on the lunar surface, which he of course photographed.  On the back was an inscription: "This is the family of Astronaut Duke from Planet Earth. Landed on the Moon, April 1972", followed by the signatures of Duke's family.  In addition to their virtual visit to the moon via this photograph, Duke's wife and sons had lunar craters named after them. 

Nowadays, we can all enjoy a lunar excursion of sorts thanks to Google Moon (where the Duke family photo can be found at marker 20 in the Apollo 16 site), and footage from this has been used in The Sasha; thus, the film features the traditional chemical photography of Duke's pictures alongside the sophisticated 3D rendering of the moon's surface as provided by Google.  This illustrates just how far technology has advanced in the years since Apollo 16 (although we haven't set foot on the moon since the year of that mission).  As such, it's easy to see why the film has been grouped with #21XOXO, even if the two films boast very different styles.  The Sasha proves to be a hypnotic, eerie and thought-provoking work, one which will leave you reflecting on that old family photograph which, although now almost certainly bleached beyond all recognition, remains up there on the lunar highlands.

Darren Arnold


Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Instinct (Halina Reijn, 2019)

Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari enjoyed a huge international breakthrough just a few months ago, starring as Jafar in the live-action version of Aladdin.  His role in Instinct - which opened in the Netherlands last week and plays at the London Film Festival on Saturday - is markedly different to the one he played in that Disney blockbuster; while still very much the villain of the piece, his character in Halina Reijn's directorial debut is far removed from the pantomime shenanigans of the Grand Vizier.  In Instinct, Kenzari conveys a very real menace which underlines his abilities as a serious dramatic actor.  Unfortunately, he and his co-star Carice van Houten are let down by a faltering script and rather uncertain direction, and Instinct never lands the knockout blow which, judging by its arresting early stages, it seems certain to deliver.

Van Houten's Nicoline is a psychologist who moves from job to job and doesn't appear to have much interest in staying in the one place for too long; her latest gig involves working in a prison for those convicted of serious offences.  Nicoline is experienced and assured, and few things seem to faze her, but this soon changes when she's charged with evaluating Idris (Kenzari), a man with multiple convictions - all of which pertain to violence against women.  Idris, who is on the verge of some unaccompanied parole, is clearly a very dangerous man but seems to be a fairly compliant inmate, and can often be quite charming - which is, presumably, how he snared many of those who went on to become his victims.  Idris' act - if it is an act - seems to persuade Nicoline's colleagues that he has been rehabilitated, but his assigned psychologist has real doubts.

While Nicoline appears to have the measure of Idris - you get the impression she's seen similar men countless times - there's something about this particular prisoner which gnaws away at her in a way she can't rationalise, and it's not long before her icy professionalism goes out of the window.  What follows is an increasingly preposterous game between Idris and Nicoline, one which sees the psychologist unravel as the prisoner toys with the mind of a woman who could well determine which side of the prison wall he ends up on.  Who's kidding who?  More pertinently, who cares?  In pitching the charismatic Idris against the aloof Nicoline, Reijn has created a strange level playing field, of sorts: Idris, unlike Nicoline, often seems to be doing things by the book, but does this current state of affairs mean we should blot out his terrible crimes?  After all, Nicoline's transgressions appear to be limited to this anomalous instance of unprofessionalism.  

Instinct's promisingly pulpy setup is the sort of thing which might just have worked in the mischievous hands of, say, François Ozon or Paul Verhoeven (side-note: Van Houten and Reijn both starred in Verhoeven's Zwartboek); the material really needs cranking up to a level where it would become enjoyably absurd (cf. Elle, L'amant double).  But Halina Reijn - who we're far more used to as a presence in front of the camera - seems to consciously pull back from such an approach, rendering Instinct an ostensibly trashy yarn that's had its guilty pleasures excised; it's a film caught between two stools.  It isn't a terrible movie - but it is a very frustrating one; while the two leads are very good, they're chained to a script which misses many opportunities to open up into something much more satisfying.  While Reijn hasn't made a bad job of her first feature film, she has opted to play it far too safe; given the subject matter, it seems most ironic that Instinct comes across as a film in which very few risks have been taken.

Darren Arnold

Images: Topkapi Films

Monday, 7 October 2019

Spring Fever/Eyes on the Road (A. Snowball/S. Kolk, 2019)

Spring Fever is one of seven films which make up London Film Festival shorts collection ...In an Age of Consent.  "De Week van de Lentekriebels" is, as many of you will know, a schools sex education programme which is well established in the Netherlands.  As with any sex ed class anywhere on the planet, "Lentekriebels" ("Spring Fever") has attracted some criticism and controversy, but much of the world has admired the way in which the programme has demystified sex and relationships for Dutch schoolchildren, thereby leading many a youngster to happy and healthy teenage years.  Anna Snowball's short, lively documentary captures snippets of the discussions in a Dutch classroom where "De Week van de Lentekriebels" is currently underway.

As you would expect, many of the pupils initially struggle to keep a straight face when discussing such a topic - but, to be fair to them, their teacher is no different - yet the smiles and nervous laughter soon give way to some thoughtful questions and answers; it's clear how little these children really know about the subject, but their friendly, good-humoured teacher is able to dispel a few of the myths and assumptions her pupils have picked up in their short lives thus far.  This could be an excruciating exercise for all concerned, but the children have no intention of making things difficult for their teacher.  The film provides an interesting glimpse into a situation many of us won't have encountered firsthand (or if we did it took a very different form); Spring Fever is very simple, but fairly effective. 

A separate LFF collection of seven shorts - Drive It Like You Stole It! - also features a Dutch film in the form of Eyes on the Road.  This film concentrates on three young women who are on a road trip in a car they appear to be living in.  The film's title is directly connected to the comments made by one of the women concerning another's driving, but this moment of friction (which soon dissipates) is not the, or even a, major event here.  Rather, the women's freewheeling conversation takes a turn into a dark and troubling area where they discuss a friend who was subjected to a terrible assault.  While this is a grim subject matter in itself, things get worse when differing opinions start to surface.

Although Eyes on the Road is to be applauded for dealing with a difficult issue, it's unfortunately not a very satisfying piece of work.  The actresses all do quite well, but there simply isn't enough in the script to keep Eyes on the Road going for its duration; even at a brief 17 minutes, the film still feels padded out.  The ending is also highly disappointing, and it's a great pity that what appears to have been a good idea has been so poorly executed.  Eyes on the Road has the air of an arbitrary chunk of a feature film, albeit one you probably wouldn't want to sit through.  But, if for some reason you do like the sort of cinema experience where it feels as if you've turned up late and left early, then it might just be for you.  It screens at the LFF on the 10th of October.

Darren Arnold